The popular depiction of chickens as egg-producing house pets doesn’t help matters. You could read about Susan Orlean’s or Martha Stewart’s brood for days and not have the first clue that sometimes chickens need to be killed for health reasons. (Foxfire: “Why, I’ve killed as high as five or six big pretty hens of Mommie’s that had taken the weak leg and they’d kill’em and tote’em off to keep it from spreading.”) Orlean takes her sick hens to the vet instead of culling them because “I couldn’t kill my own pet” and then cries when they die.
Of course, animal slaughter is only part of the neo-homesteading movement. The idealism of would-be chicken-keepers is matched among the legions of picklers, urban farmers, home-brewers, and people who bake with spelt, though the results tend to be less bloody. Foxfire 2 features an illustrated guide to making your own clothes, from raising and shearing sheep to weaving patterned cloth on a loom. One ancient weaver, Aunt Arie, is shown squinting at the sun, holding up a tattered but sturdy garment: “Octie Bates wove this slip,” she says. “Y’see how big it is. I wore it ever since it’s made—forty, sixty years ago.” Today’s version of self-sufficient clothes manufacture is play-acting in comparison: an educational film on “What I Learned the Year I Made My Own Linen Underwear,” say, or a sewing circle in which participants mended a pair of “severely busted-through dance pants,” among other projects.
There’s a similar cognitive dissonance in reading the Foxfire sections on canning and preserving (to dry apples: “Fill a ten gallon wooden tub with sliced apples; then put two tablespoons of sulfur in a saucer and strike a match and set th’ sulfur on fire”) or foraging for food (“We always used the sheep sorrel to make [mixed greens] sour like vinegar. Didn't have much vinegar then, you know, so they used that.”). These practices have been adopted by the neo-homesteaders and DIY bloggers, illustrated with gorgeous photos and a feisty, earnest attitude. All of them are pleasurable games played by deracinated urbanites who desire some contact with authentic crafts and skills now nearly lost to time—not a way of life for hungry people who need the nourishment they find in sidewalk cracks to survive.
No one is hurt by urban foraging or jam-canning, of course, and the pursuit of deeper connection through house chores is admirable in its own easily-mocked way. (I myself derive great satisfaction from sewing on buttons, baking bread, and so forth. And I only wish I knew how to mend my busted-through dance pants.) But because it fosters false nostalgia for an imagined self-sufficient rural life, it may mask some of the real problems facing the dwindling number of people who actually live that life. Emily Cook, manager at Virginia’s Farm at Sunnyside, told me she was sick of “farmer groupies” who weren’t actually interested in the real problems farmers are facing. “The discussion needs to move beyond how great heirloom tomatoes are to how are we going to have farmers 20 years from now,” she said. “Our system really needs to change to make farming a viable career to people.”
I spoke with other farmers who echoed her sentiments. Although the modern-day back-to-the-land movement has brought important new interest and excitement into farming— not to mention an economic boost through farmer’s markets and CSAs—its portrait of rural life skips over some urgent issues for smallholder farmers, like the difficulty of saving up to buy land on a farmer’s salary and the feeling that U.S. farm policy is stacked toward larger, specialized conglomerates.
In Foxfire 4, old-time builder Charlie Ross Hartley brings up the economic difficulties of farming, how it’s not any more a feasible profession for someone starting out: “That’s why our young people are all leaving. Our family—the boys and all had to scatter out to get a job.” At least his children or grandchildren, with their city salaries, can someday pay for a class on keeping their own chickens—once they get far enough away to become nostalgic about what was left behind.